- Historic Sites
Why the most fascinating of subjects is made to seem the most boring—and what can be done about it
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
Family Composition and Life Course
Hollywood’s Image of Women, 1900 and 1930
Student Activism in the 1920’s
Minorities, Radicals, and the Shaping of American Sports
Child-Rearing in Early Pennsylvania
The Politics of 20th-century American Science
Marxism and Afro-American History
Each of these subjects holds intrinsic interest. But each is also either abstruse or chosen from a “trendy” area of public concern. There is no overall pattern; only topicality binds them together. Where once it appeared to be the historian’s province to put the front page of the newspaper into the perspective of history’s great blueprint, now it is the headlines which dictate the course of next year’s research.
Another sign of this tendency in the academy is the proliferation of new and snappy courses, and the change in the composition of the major. Once it was thought that history was developmental, and humanity’s march through time had to be followed in sequence, with most attention on the vanguard. But the last two colleges at which I have taught permitted a freewheeling choice of courses in no special configuration or order of priority: Puritan America, Twentieth-Century Immigration, the French Revolution, and Victorian Cities stand on the same democratic footing. What was most important, the professors agreed, was that students be exposed to historical modes of thought.
Given this professional withdrawal into analysis and specialization, it is not surprising that American historians have not agreed on what schoolteachers and publishers should convey to teen-agers. Ms. FitzGerald chides the publishers for “casting away scholarly claims to authority,” but it is the majority of scholars themselves who have restricted their authority to miniature frameworks. They hardly speak to the adult members of what they call the “lay audience,” and when they do venture into writing textbooks that go beyond their “period,” they are persuaded to generalize only by their awareness that the performance will not be reviewed in the academic journals by peers. The unofficial rule is that one does not criticize a fellow academic who is earning his dollar.
It is not that the historians themselves are to blame for the situation; they did not create the events of this century that blasted away the progressive vision of history, or the new scientific disciplines that tend to reduce human choices to reflexes. But they did retreat, like many modern artists and writers, into abstraction, difficulty, and noncommunicativeness, and it is doubtful that if the publishers left them alone, a new Muzzey would emerge from their ranks.
The “Muzzeyan” view of history, of course, had its flaws. There was something grotesque about a story that excluded all but WASP males from important roles, all but Yankee values from sympathetic consideration. But there are tremendous difficulties in merely giving equal time to all perspectives. The message of such multicultural history, as Ms. FitzGerald points out, would be that “Americans have no common history, no common culture, and no common values … that the center cannot, and should not, hold.” That is a counsel of despair to all but the most convinced anarchist. And to overpower children with a description of problems, without also drawing on the past for principles to assist in finding solutions, is to reinforce cynicism and apathy.
It may, of course, be impossible to re-knit the threads of a lost consensus, or even to make sense of teaching the history of individual nations in a world as compact as ours is now. But if there is some excuse for the textbooks’ lack of focus, there is less for their dullness. Even with tidiness and uplift discarded, people still need poetry and drama, drawn from what we call the “real” past. History as saga may be dead on campuses, but not in the world at large. The enormous success of popular works of history and biography and the continuing existence of this magazine are both evidence of that fact. There is excitement in the sights and sounds of yesterday, and courage to be drawn from good examples, and identity to be forged from an awareness of continuity—that it happened here , on this spot, to people like me . The existence of an adult demand for good history proves that there are children out there—at least the lucky ones not destroyed by their surroundings—waiting to be kindled by the right kinds of stories from life, embodied in books. Books
No textbook could ever wholly fill that prescription. Even the old-fashioned ones lost out to the seductions of dime novels, even as the novels themselves eventually were jostled by movies and the radio. And there are more charges that can be brought against the schoolbooks of a bygone day. They tricked the students into believing that they were all superior citizens of a model republic. They embodied, it may be, a pack of lies agreed on.